International Women's Day: seven myths about women in the workplace

·8 min read
Changing perception: there are many common myths about women in business - StudioThreeDots
Changing perception: there are many common myths about women in business - StudioThreeDots

International Women's Day is upon us; a day to celebrate all the achievements of women, both in the UK and across the globe.

The theme of this year's campaign is #EachforEqual – and there's no better place to start with ensuring gender equality than in the workplace.

The Telegraph's Women Mean Business campaign shines a light on the challenges faced by women in the workplace by aiming to encourage the development of policies designed to help female entrepreneurs. But while women's career prospects have vastly improved since the first International Women's Day celebration in the early 1900s, there are still some alarming myths that persist.

As Sophie Walker, CEO Young Women’s Trust, puts it, while "new figures show that more women are in employment than ever before," there is a "hard reality" that lies below.

"Women are more likely to be in part-time, low-paid work, more likely to be paid less than the minimum wage and more likely to be on zero hours contracts," says Walker. "They are still far from equal in the workplace."

In honour of International Women's Day, we've taken some of the most common, and explored them with the realities behind women's work in 2020 below.

Myth #1: The Gender Pay gap no longer exists

Reality: Despite a growing awareness among employers in the shocking disparity between male and female pay in the workplace, the gender pay gap well and truly exists. According to figures from the Office for National Statistics in 2019, the gender pay gap among full-time employees stands at 8.9pc. This has changed little from the figures in 2018 (8.6 per cent), and has only declined 0.6pc since 2012.

While the gender pay gap’s existence is fortunately widely accepted now, there is still a worrying minority view among some far right think tanks and men’s rights activists that it is a myth perpetuated by feminists.

According to Sam Smethers, the Chief Executive of the Fawcett Society, “The persistence of male dominance the top of business is an indicator of a waste of female talent and experience.”

“In addition to reporting their gender pay gaps, employers should be required to publish action plans and also publish gender pay gap by ethnicity data," she says. “We need to modernise equal pay law to give women the right to know what a male colleague is earning if they suspect pay discrimination."

There are landmark cases paving the way for change. In January, journalist Samira Ahmed won her employment tribunal against the BBC for equal pay, although the corporation hasn’t revealed the settlement figure. Ahmed had claimed she was underpaid by £700,000 for hosting Newswatch, compared with Jeremy Vine’s salary for Point Of View.

Myth #2: Women are poor negotiators

Reality: Often, this myth is used to justify the existence of the gender pay gap. However, this doesn't hold up. The Harvard Business Review found that women are just as skilled at arguing for a pay rise as men – when given the resources.

The research, undertaken by Hannah Riley Bowles and Kathleen McGinn, showed that when women know more details going into a salary negotiation — like the pay range or average salary, for instance — they can negotiate just as successfully as men can.

It seems the myth is also down to the way women are unfairly penalised when it comes to negotiating. The study found that both male and female study participants were less interested in working with women who attempted to negotiate a better salary than they were with men who tried to negotiate a higher salary.

So women can negotiate equally as well as men, but are put off due to the social barriers. A study carried out by Good Money Week in 2019 found that more than a quarter of women have never requested a pay rise and women are substantially more likely to find the process of doing so “awkward”.

Charlene Cranny, campaigns director at Good Money Week, says: “There are larger structural issues at play for why women are often paid less than men, but there is definitely something to be said for ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Get’. Men are still socialised to ‘win’ and ‘provide’ so feel empowered and excited about asking for a pay rise.”

Myth #3: Female-led businesses are less profitable than male led ones

Reality: This myth can be infuriating for many female entrepreneurs. A 2019 report by researchers at Credit Suisse found that the shares of companies with more women managers deliver higher returns, while a greater number of women executives is also correlated with stronger revenue growth and higher profit margins.

While this is great news for both women and companies alike, the reality of the current corporate climate is radically different. According to the Alison Rose Review of Female Entrepreneurship, up to £250 billion of new value could be added to the UK economy if women started and scaled new businesses at the same rate as UK men.

However, in 2019, only one in three UK entrepreneurs were female in the UK; a gender gap equivalent to 1.1 million missing businesses.

And there’s proof female led businesses are no less profitable; the same proportion (73 per cent) of men and women entrepreneurs in our survey had run a business for 3.5 years or more, suggesting that women-owned businesses are at least as stable and resilient as those run by men.

Myth #4: The proportion of men and women on top UK company boards is equal

Reality: No, this is incorrect. But the good news is that the numbers are slowly evening out. The 30 Per Cent Club, a multinational group that promotes greater representation of women on boards, said that women now hold 903 out of 3,008 board positions at the 350 biggest companies by market capitalisation listed on the London Stock Exchange.

This is a huge improvement from when the club was founded in 2010. The share stood at only 9.5 per cent.

Despite this, there is still a long way to go. The Hampton Alexander Review found that in 2019, there were only 25 women in chair roles in the FTSE 350.

Women are taken more seriously if they dress appropriately | Camilla Tominey, Associate Editor
Women are taken more seriously if they dress appropriately | Camilla Tominey, Associate Editor

Myth #5: Sexual harassment in the workplace is declining

Reality: This myth is particularly scary for women in workplaces across the UK. A report published in February by the Trade Union Congress (TUC) found that two thirds of women aged between 18 and 24 have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. The TUC called the figures “alarmingly high” in the #MeToo era – an age that has seemingly encouraged women to speak more openly about sexual misconduct.

Alarmingly, these figures have got worse in the past four years. The TUC’s 2016 report ‘Still Just a Bit of Banter’ found that more than half (52 per cent) of women polled had experienced some form of sexual harassment at work. Four out of five women did not report the sexual harassment to their employer.

To combat these shockingly high figures, the TUC is calling for compulsory guidance, such as mandatory training, to explain what employers need to do to prevent sexual harassment happening, and a way for employees to report behaviours anonymously.

Myth #6: Women are no longer seen as the primary caregiver for the family

Reality: Yes, there have been improvements in this field. Gone are the days of the 1960 housewife advert, where a woman awaits her husband's return from work with a homemade chicken pie.

Over the last decade, the number of stay-at-home Dads steadily rose, freeing up more opportunities for women to pursue a career outside the home. And of course, it’s absolutely OK for women to choose to be housewives, too.

However, in 2017, figures from the Office for National Statistics found 232,000 men opting out of the workplace – the lowest number since 2014, and a sharp drop against a pattern which had been steadily increasing since 1993. What's more, research by EMW law in 2019 found that fewer than one in three new fathers take paternity leave.

“Women constitute the vast majority of carers – whether as unpaid carers at home, or 84 percent of an underpaid and demoralised social care workforce, where the average salary is £17,000," says Sophie Walker, CEO of the Young Women's Trust. "Women's disproportionate care responsibilities are the result of an education system that funnels them away from better paid jobs earmarked for men; woeful workplace parenting policies that limit paternity leave and pay; and years of successive governments marking social infrastructure (childcare, social care, healthcare) as an expense while physical infrastructure is an investment."

Myth #7: Women are too emotional to succeed in the workplace

Reality: The survival of this myth depends upon a set of deeply outdated stereotypes; that women are hysterical and sensitive, while men are hardened and well adapted to the world of work.

In reality, this couldn’t be further from the truth. A survey of 2,250 UK workers and managers by Totaljobs found that men were twice as likely to get emotional because their “ideas weren’t heard” or because they “were criticised.” They were also almost three times as likely as women to experience an emotional event because a project went over budget, missed a deadline or got cancelled.

Not that showing emotion makes any difference to either gender in the workplace. Recent research cited in Forbes found that managers consistently rate people with higher sensitivity as the best performers in their organizations.